If That’s How You Want to Play

One of the things that attracts people to the advertising industry is its looser standards of behavior for creatives. Now, before you get too excited, this is not a post with sordid tales of bacchanalian antics. I’m just talking about a looser culture in general. For example, you can wear t-shirts and jeans and flip-flops to work, and it’s no big deal. You can wear shorts too, but I never do.

And you can start your day pretty much any time you want. You’re treated like an adult, and if you have to come in at 7 a.m. to get your work done, that’s what you do. If you feel like rolling in at 10 and you can still get everything done, fine.

Part of the reason is because we tend to work long hours. We work late and we work weekends. Staying until 7 or 8 at night is fairly typical.

Chiat/Day was known for being a bit of a sweatshop. One nickname for them was Chiat/Day and Night. I remember reading about a t-shirt they made that read, “If you don’t come in Saturday, don’t bother coming in Sunday.”

I worked at a place once that made me come in at 8:30 a.m. The agency was started by a guy who made a ton of money in real estate, and he thought starting an ad agency would be fun. The place was in La Jolla, and I lived about an hour and a half away. They had some good clients and the owner wanted to upgrade his creative, so he made my freelance art director partner and me an offer we couldn’t refuse.

But the owner of the agency had no idea how to handle creatives. He wanted us there at 8:30. If I got there at 8:35 because of unpredictable traffic, he would get mad, even if we had worked till 10 p.m. the night before.

It was a match destined to not last very long.

We did some great work, but the AEs started complaining that we weren’t doing what they wanted us to do. Me in particular, I think. They would come to me with client changes and expect me to just do them, with no questions asked. Often the changes were horrible, and the AEs didn’t have any rationale for them. So I would call the client (with the AE) and talk to them about what they were trying to achieve with the changes, then suggest other ways of saying it. They usually liked the alternatives, and they were happy and I was happy. But the AEs weren’t. They weren’t used to creatives with an opinion.

After six months or so of coming in early and working late and butting heads with AEs, I could feel it spinning out of control. About this time, my partner and a couple of other guys and I wandered into a video arcade near a food court at lunchtime. I noticed a For Sale sign on the Tetris machine, and since it was the only video game I was ever any good at and I was making good money, I bought it, we threw it in my truck, and we took it back to the agency. Official hours at the place were 8:30 to 5, so if that’s how he wanted to play it, fine. At 5:01, we were back there banging on the Tetris machine. We still worked late, but we took a break at 5:01 for a half hour or so.

Man, the owner hated that. Hated me, actually.

So not surprisingly, the Executive Creative Director, who was a good guy, called me into the conference room one day. “(The owner) wants me to fire you. But I don’t want to. You do great work and I love having you around.”

Then he didn’t say anything else. So I waited a minute and said, “So what are you gonna do?”

He said, “Well, I’m going to fire you. That’s what we’re doing right now. I’m firing you.”

I said, “Oh, because you said you didn’t want to, so I thought maybe you were going to try to talk him out of it or something.”

He said, “No, I already tried. I don’t have a choice.”

He felt really bad, but I assured him I was good. I could see it coming. I thanked him for all he had done for us, packed up my stuff, and went back to Freelanceland.

And yes, I still have the Tetris game. Guess who has high score?

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